Chef Greg Martin found his buns in Europe and his husband in the parking lot
by Marene Gustin
Greg Martin is passionate about life, about the love of his life—and about bread.
“I really am passionate about bread,” says the 52-year-old executive chef for the Café Express eateries. “I think bread makes the meal. I would go to Europe and every café would have wonderful bread. I’d think, ‘How do they do these perfect pastries?’”
Being passionate about dough products, he hunted down the 150-year-old Danish artisan bread company Lantmännen Unibake.
“They ship us the croissants, artisan breads, and pastries,” he says enthusiastically. “We have a piece of equipment that butters the bread evenly, and then we toast it for our sandwiches.” One of those sandwiches is the new Breakfast BLT—bacon, lettuce, Roma tomatoes, mayo, scrambled eggs, and cheddar cheese on a buttery toasted brioche bun.
“My mom used to make this for us,” he recalls. “But she used a fried egg.”
It was his mom and grandmother who instilled the love of cooking in him. He grew up in Houston’s Memorial area, eating his mom’s southern cooking. And every summer his parents would drive him to his grandparent’s home in Arkansas. “I grew up thinking it was perfectly normal to see grandma wring a chicken’s neck, chop off the head, and hang it on the clothesline to bleed out before making fried chicken for dinner,” he says.
Martin headed to Austin to attend the University of Texas but returned to Houston in the 1980s to begin his kitchen career, bouncing from restaurant to restaurant until he landed in the kitchen of Café Annie, working under celebrity chef Robert Del Grande. Martin would stay with the Schiller Del Grande Restaurant Group for 23 years, helping start Café Express and Taco Milagro.
“The first Café Express was just a place for us to have a part-time job,” ? Martin says. “Because you couldn’t make a living cooking at Café Annie, we took a lot of ideas from Café Annie to Café Express. It was a lot of fun—we were making good food fast, [with Del Grande’s wife and partner] Mimi calling out orders and Candice [Lonnie Schiller’s wife who is also a partner in the group] on the cash register.”
But after more than two decades, Martin took a break in 2003 and went to work for Sysco, the Houston-based billion-dollar food supplier, followed by a stint as food and beverage director for Central Market, opening 15 Café on the Run locations in H-E-B grocery stores around Texas.
Because he likes to sleep late on Sundays, he left retail and returned to Café Express in 2008 as the corporate chef, cooking up yummy recipes for its 18 locations. He spends most of his days in his test kitchen at the restaurant on West Gray. And since he’s not working on the line all day, he also loves to cook at home. “I’m a cook who doesn’t have to cook,” he says with a smile, “so I do.”
But this handsome chef isn’t cooking alone. What puts the sparkle in this chef’s eyes is his partner, Paul, a college professor. “I am the luckiest man in the world,” Martin says, grinning ear to ear. “We met 13 years ago and he dumped me,” Martin explains. “He was the love of my life. And then a year and a half ago we ran into each other right here in the parking lot of Café Express.”
And they’ve been together ever since.
The couple shares a Midtown patio home with two dogs and two cats. They enjoy running, collecting wine, music, and gardening. “We have two lots in the Midtown Community Garden,” Martin says. “It’s amazing. You put seeds in the ground and they grow!” The couple also loves to travel, journeying to Europe once a year for cooking inspiration. And yes, Paul cooks as well, so they share the dinner duties.
Next up for the chef? Introducing more dinner items at Café Express. “I want to do a steak,” Martin says. “Café Express is known for breakfast and lunch, but when it comes to dinner, guys say ‘there’s nothing there I want to eat!’ So we’ve added salmon, burgers, and pasta dishes. But every bistro in France has a steak that you can walk in and order. If they can do it, so can we. It’s not rocket science.”
Marene Gustin is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.